W.W. Norton and Company, 2018.
We’re very pleased that Emily Wilson’s new book—the first English translation of The Odyssey by a woman—has given us a reason to return to a favorite text. The Odyssey, as well as the earlier Iliad, is an epic poem attributed to Homer, the earliest Greek poet whose works have survived to the present day. These two works belong to a genre called traditional or oral epic, which celebrate a culture’s hero or heroes. The central event in both The Illiad and The Odyssey is the Trojan War, which historians believe occurred in the thirteenth century BCE. Homer probably lived about 500 years later, by which time the stories about the war had been told and retold many times. Since the Greeks did not use writing until about 750 BCE, Homer probably composed the poems orally and perhaps “sang” them in much the way the blind bard Demodocus of the Phaeacians tells his stories in Book 8 of The Odyssey. Some scholars believe that Homer also put his version of the stories into the written form in which they have come down to us.
The Odyssey uses certain formulaic features of the oral epic listed below. Though you should read this epic as a story, much as you would read a modern novel, you will discover many features in epic poetry that are different. The presence of the gods in the human world and their peculiar relationship to humans may seem odd to us at first. And the style of the oral epic is quite relaxed, often repetitious, and sometimes digressive. On the whole, nevertheless, the story line is clear throughout.
Because this story originally was sung it uses oral formulaic features:
Just as a mountain lion trusts its strength,
And beaten by the rain and wind, its eyes
burn bright as it attacks the cows or sheep,
or wild deer, and hunger drives it on
to try the sturdy pens of sheep—so need
impelled Odysseus to come upon
the girls with pretty hair, though he was naked. (6.130-136)
The main theme of The Odyssey is the homecoming or return theme: Odysseus and the other Greek heroes of the Trojan War are returning after various experiences to homes that are very different from the ones they left. Each hero’s homecoming story is unique (notice especially the contrast between the stories of Agamemnon and Odysseus), but this epic focuses on the return of Odysseus.
The struggles of his wife, Penelope, are comparably heroic, as she holds off the suitors who assume that Odysseus is dead and seek to take his place. The epic begins with a look at the situation in Ithaca and especially at the wife and son of the long-absent hero. In fact, it is his son Telemachus who seems to be the main character in the first four books. Homer later uses a kind of flashback technique in Books 9-12 to have Odysseus tell his own story of his adventures up to this point, just before his actual homecoming. The story includes many incredible adventures, while also prompting us to think about journeys and how we welcome the stranger at our own door.
To help you remember what you have read, and to prepare for re-reading:
• Circle the speaker’s name, so that you can distinguish dialog
from the narrative more easily
• Make brief marginal notes of what is happening on each page,
or at the end of each episode
• At the end of each book, summarize in a few words what
happened. Taking two or three minutes to do so will help you
remember what you read
We have asked you to read the “Translator’s Note” on pp. 81-91 (but the “Introduction” on pp. 1-79, while it is an informative preface to the epic, is not assigned reading). Also, the maps on pp. 94-101 as well as the pronunciation glossary (pp. 553-577) will assist you in following Odysseus’ journey. Finally, excellent summaries and notes for each book (beginning on p. 527) will help you to enjoy the adventure and eliminate the need to seek outside commentary on the text.
1. The “Translator’s Note” on pp. 81-91 of the book will give you an appreciation for the small but important choices that Wilson makes as a translator, choices that give the epic poem a lively pace and animate characters in new ways. For example, quite a bit of attention has been paid to the word that Wilson selects to describe the main character, Odysseus in her first line: “Tell me about a complicated man” (1.1). In the original Greek word, polytropos, the prefix poly means ‘many’ or ‘multiple’ and tropos means ‘turn.’ Past translators have rendered this description as “prudent,” “so wary and wise,” “cunning,” and even “deep.” What kind of man is Odysseus? As you read the translator’s note, think about how Wilson’s choices affect your experience of the story.
2. How is the conflict set up in Book 1 of The Odyssey? Within Odysseus’ household in Ithaca? Among the gods? Between the gods and humans? Read closely Zeus’ speech on fate and free will (1.31-44).
3. Among many ancient legacies that we recognize today are, first, democratic processes for decision-making and upholding the law; second, creativity in the arts; and third, a keen interest in philosophical questions. Where are these features apparent? Where and how are they raised?
4. In Book 2 of The Odyssey we find an account of a very early form of political assembly. What are the customs and forms which govern the assembly as described in Homer?
5. Hospitality is an important theme in the epic. When Telemachus visits the great households of Nestor and Menelaus at Pylos and Sparta, how is he received? How does the order and conduct of these households contrast with that in the besieged household of Odysseus? Think particularly about the roles of women and how their voices are heard in the various households.
6. In these first books, Odysseus’ homecoming is introduced to us by contrasting his homecoming with those of other Greek heroes. Why do both Nestor and Menelaus make a point of telling Telemachus the story of Agamemnon’s homecoming and the behavior of Agamemnon’s wife and son? Compare Menelaus’ homecoming to that of Agamemnon. What other kinds of things does Telemachus learn during his journey and why might these be important?
7. What is the cost to Odysseus of leaving Ogygia for his home in Ithaca? Why is he willing to pay that cost?
8. Describe the home of Nausicaa: the values of home and hospitality, the family life, the economic situation. Could Odysseus find a home among the Phaeacians? Why or why not?
9. In epic, the heroes embody the values of a culture. What special traits in Odysseus do you notice so far? How does Odysseus exhibit his superiority or heroic qualities (his arête) in his journeys?
10. The epic also illustrates how Ancient Greeks sorted out relationships among cultural groups: those who spoke the language of the poet were part of a loosely confederated Greek community; those who did not were barbarians or worse. How is this apparent in the scenes of the Lotus-eaters and the Cyclops? How might this tale have been different if told from the Cyclops’ perspective?
11. The hero’s relationship to the gods is central to the Greek myths and therefore to epic. Describe that relationship as you see it in books 9-11. Where in his adventures does Odysseus defy a god or as the Greeks would say, exhibit hubris (exessive pride or arrogance)? What reason might he have for defying a god? How does his defiance affect his journey?
12. Compare Odysseus to his men and think about his response to each of the conflicts that he encounters. In what ways does he show himself to be more admirable than his men? In what ways is he just as foolish or vulnerable as they are?
13. In Book 11, why does Odysseus go to the underworld? Whom does he meet there, and what are their stories? What attitudes are exhibited here toward death and life after death? How do you emotionally respond to these stories, and how do you think a fifth century BCE Greek listener or reader would react? Finally, what is the role of Tiresias?
14. How would you describe the roles of the goddesses in the poem? You may wish to compare the relationship of Odysseus to Athena with his relationship to Circe.
15. The graciousness of the Phaeacians toward Odysseus is complicated by their kinship with Poseidon. How does the story resolve this complex divine/human relationship in Book 13?
16. Describe Odysseus’ meeting with Athena and with the swineherd Eumaeus. Why does Odysseus trick him?
17. How does Odysseus behave when he first meets his son? Why does he act this way? Note the order in the following books in which Odysseus reveals his identity to the people in Ithaca.
18. At the manor who observes and who violates the tradition of hospitality? How? What is the significance of this to the homecoming story?
19. Who recognizes Odysseus, and how? What is the significance of this to the homecoming story?
20. Books 20 and 21 present a series of trials. Who is tested in each of these trials, by whom, and to what end?
21. How is the conflict within the household and between the household and community resolved? What is the role of Penelope in that solution? Telemachus? Odysseus? Athena? Zeus?
22. Odysseus deals out a harsh justice to the traitorous maids and the suitors. Do the traitors deserve this bloody retribution? Is Odysseus morally justified in what he does? Consider, too, Athena’s role. Do you think The Odyssey glorifies violence? What does this episode suggest to us about the values of early Greek culture?
23. To restore order in the community, Odysseus must be reunited with different members of that community. List the order of the various reunions.
24. Why does Penelope test Odysseus as a part of their reunion? Note the epic simile in the reunion scene (23.232-241). How does the powerful language of the literal images and epic similes contribute to the emotional power of the scene?
25. What do the various reunions say about the values of ancient Greek culture? How might The Odyssey and the Odysseus myth have contributed to the paideia (the education process) for men in Athens? What values are embodied in the epic? Which of these values are our values? Which are not? What is the relationship between a particular human culture and what it values?
We are pleased to announce that Emily Wilson, translator of The Odyssey, will speak at our Fall 2018 Opening Convocation.
* Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey is available at the Luther College book shop and other retailers. Make sure to purchase the correct edition: ISBN-13: 978-0-393-08905-9 (or ISBN-10: 0393089053).
Since you will be using this book in class to support your interpretations and arguments, it is important for everyone to have the same edition.